In that vein, Porzingis has challenges ahead, not the least of which will be staying healthy and upbeat if the losses should mount. But at 22, and having promised in three languages (Latvian, Spanish and English) at 19 that he was no soft, shy European, he has gracefully embraced his promotion.
As Porzingis drained free throws to seal a game the Knicks dominated except for one horrific third-quarter stretch, I mentioned to someone sitting next to me at the Garden that Porzingis’s willingness to blow off an exit meeting with Phil Jackson last April, when Jackson still ran the team, was actually an example of a precocious young star showing conviction.
“People said he should have told Phil what he was upset about directly, but he was sending a message to ownership that he wasn’t going to accept the chaotic way the franchise was being run,” I said. “Even if his people put him up to it.”
The guy introduced himself as Dan Rohme of the agency ASA Sports — or as he said, “one of Kristaps’s people.”
For what it’s worth, he didn’t bother to correct me.
Mission accomplished. Jackson took the bait, commenced fielding trade offers for Porzingis and was soon posting on Twitter a selfie of his unemployed bare feet from his Montana retreat.
The unofficial Friends of Anthony association will point out that he was routinely targeted for not sharing the ball enough while Porzingis will get a pass for his own high-volume shooting. In the six games to date this season, while averaging 29.3 points, he has all of 5 assists.
The crucial difference is in the approach. While he obviously feels free to launch from far and away, occasionally too soon, Porzingis gets most of his shots within the flow of an offense. He is also demonstrating a greater comfort closer to the basket — catching, turning and daring a player several inches smaller to block his shot.
As Rohme said, wait until his slender legs fill out and allow Porzingis, at 7 feet 3 inches, to better fend off the more brutish post defenders.
While Porzingis isn’t opening eyes with his passing the way Nikola Jokic, Denver’s 6-10 Serbian stud, has since becoming the hub of the Nuggets’ offense, he’s not exactly inhibiting teammates from getting theirs.
The explosive and somewhat erratic Tim Hardaway Jr. put up 34 points on Sunday night when the Knicks stunned LeBron Inc. in Cleveland and he had a flurry of 13 points in the fourth quarter against the Nuggets. Enes Kanter, the 25-year-old low-post Turkish terror, has been getting plenty of touches. Jarrett Jack, the journeyman point guard whose insertion into the starting lineup helped stop the bleeding, is a competent shotmaker.
But for all the players acquired or retained around Porzingis, none figure into a potentially enhanced Knicks future quite like the 19-year-old Ntilikina, selected eighth in the 2017 draft. He was also Jackson’s final transaction before owner James Dolan wisely addressed Porzingis’s unhappiness by eliminating Jackson’s stubbornness.
Having watched the Knicks beat the Nets last Friday night at the Garden in a seat behind the home team’s bench, what struck me about Ntilikina was how he plays with his eyes literally open wide — though not in stage fright.
He may not be as audacious a rookie as Porzingis was, but nor is he averse to being bold in moments. Ntilikina made several passes — bounce passes for the purists left among us — against the Nets in transition that, more even than Porzingis, roused the Garden in the way that only visionary ball-sharing can.
Ntilikina was injured during summer league and for most of training camp so, who knew? In the Knicks’ pregame locker room Monday night, Kanter said he did.
“Let me tell you something, his vision is probably one of the top 10 in the N.B.A. right now,” he told me.
“Yes. His vision is unbelievable. He’s going to be special.”
He is also rookie raw, with nine turnovers to go with 10 assists, including an embarrassing strip while dribbling the ball up court against Denver’s Will Barton. Let’s also note that Kanter was hyping Porzingis for the N.B.A. Most Valuable Player Award on Monday night, suggesting that three straight wins, with Houston in town on Wednesday night, have been intoxicating, if not mind-altering.
Then again, along with excellent court vision, Ntilikina is 6-5 with long limbs that foretell an ability for the Knicks to finally address a ruinous lack of defensive pressure at the point of attack. Kanter, too, should know transcendent potential when he sees it, having shared much court time at his last stop in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
It would be cruelly unfair to expect or predict that level of greatness on anyone. But given early evidence of a tandem that will give the Knicks a real foundation, why not at least begin the anthem of hope with, O say, can you see?